When state Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel held a conference call with reporters April 15, there were was just one confirmed inmate case and one confirmed staff case of COVID-19 at SCI Huntingdon, and there were only 12 confirmed cases in the entire county.
As of press time today, 16 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and 17 inmates have tested positive, which may be cause for concern for many because, by all appearances, there seems to be an outbreak.
The only SCI facility in the state that has higher confirmed cases of COVID-19 is at SCI Phoenix, which is located in the southeastern portion of the state in Montgomery County. This makes SCI Huntingdon the correctional facility with the second highest rate of confirmed cases in the state.
At present, there are 650 staff members who work at one of the largest employers in the county and, as of today, there are currently 1,988 inmates housed at SCI Huntingdon.
DOC spokesperson Maria Finn noted the DOC is required to report any positive cases among staff or inmates to the state Department of Health (DOH) within 24 hours.
As to how this contributes to the overall count of cases in Huntingdon County, Finn said inmates are considered residents of the county in which they are housed, so they would be included in the overall count of cases in the county, which is at 29 as of press time.
As far as staff members, their cases would count for their county of residence.
The DOC also updates their confirmed case counts in the evening, which may be ahead of when the DOH releases its numbers at noon each day.
Though officials did not say how the outbreak started, it’s obvious it came from somewhere in the community.
Finn stressed the measures that all SCI facilities have taken to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“We know that COVID-19 enters the inmate population from the community, which is why we have curtailed visitation and implemented screening and ‘source control’ for all staff and inmates,” she said.
All visitation at SCIs across the state was suspended effective March 13, and inmates were officially quarantined as of March 29, which means they are fed in their cells. They are also given out-of-cell time for video visits, phone calls, access to the law library and provided in-cell programming.
Employees, food services, medical staff and clergy who are contracted employees of SCIs across the state are screened before they enter the facility.
“All employees and vendors who must enter the facility are screened for COVID-like symptoms and must wear masks at all times when in the facility,” said Finn.
When inmates are out of their cells, they must wear face masks, and Finn said they are treated as potential “sources” for COVID-19, and separate quarantine measures have been taken for those who show symptoms, but may not be confirmed positive.
“All inmates are treated as potential sources, meaning people who are infected even if they are unaware of it,” she said. “All inmates must wear face masks when out of cell. All inmate movement has been severely curtailed, and all symptomatic inmate patients are isolated, as well as their contacts, including those in nearby housing, are separately quarantined.”
The gymnasium at SCI Huntingdon is now an infirmary for inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, and all staff members who deal with those inmates are donned in full personal protective equipment when dealing with those inmates.
Inmates are tested when they exhibit symptoms.
“They are tested when they have symptoms, like a fever, or because they appear to be ill in any way,” she said, noting turnaround time to receive test results can be as quick as two to three days.
Contract tracing has also been initiated with staff members who have self reported as positive for COVID-19.
“Staff are asked questions at screening to determine if they have been in contact with a person who is under investigation for COVID-19,” said Finn. “Due to privacy concerns, we are limited with what we can ask staff. However, affected staff members are interviewed and internal jail surveillance camera recordings are studied to identify contacts.”
At SCI Smithfield, only two staff members have tested positive and no inmates have tested positive at this time.
Across all state prisons, 90 staff and 47 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of press time today.
To see case counts and measures the DOC has taken to mitigate the spread, visit www.cor.pa.gov/Pages/COVID-19.aspx.